The latest installment of Dreamfall Chapters: Realms is probably its most puzzle-intensive yet. The episode opens with a fetch quest, which I had a minor quibble with because it assumes the player has knowledge of the first game in the series, The Longest Journey. So, some might find the prologue a bit slow. Moreover, whilst the start screen for Chapters offers a recap for the second game, it offers no such information on the first game.
I had another gameplay issue that I found was rooted in how the game was inspired by point-and-click 2D adventures of the past. In 2D adventure games, you spend a lot of time searching for objects, but there are, ordinarily, few screens to be dealing with. In a 3D game, it can take an awful lot longer to find the relevant object to progress gameplay. You spend less time actively in problem solving. For the most part, Realms circumvents the problem with subtle sign-posting and a focus on using the resources available to you, rather than finding them.
For the most part.
At any rate, you know how I went on and on about the map system? Well, I’m going to eat my words—again—on that matter. In Zoë’s section, Propast has become such a police state that Zoë is only permitted to go to one location. A small, mocking arrow appears over a bot’s head as it directs you to the only place you’re sanctioned by law to visit. Suddenly, I appreciated all the times I got lost because at least then I was free. Good gameplay and story integration.
But, gameplay aside, it’s the character work in Realms that makes the episode stand out. Kian, who has up until this point been quite stoic and closed off, has started to open up to his rebel friends. There was this one scene, which may or may not occur depending on your choices in the last book, which stood out to me. It gave a lot of insight into Azadi culture as Kian frankly discussed discrimination. So many games handle discrimination against fantastical beings as a metaphor whilst dancing around contemporary social issues. Chapters does both, when it, for instance, contrasts the real-world rooted Eurocentrism of Propast with the xenophobia against magicals in Marcuria.
Kian still retains a lot of awkwardness, however. This makes for some interesting scenes with Anna, a woman he may or may not have kissed. In fact, I liked the varying choices to such a degree that I wish it were easier to switch between multiple playthroughs.
A mainstay of the series, Crow, makes his first appearance in Chapters. This just made me think how well this game does adorable side characters and sidekicks, many of whom make an appearance in this episode. Much of the writing, in general, is impressive. There’s an unfortunately named tavern (the name is a double entendre). Now, in the last episode, the double-meaning was addressed, but in this episode they don’t so much lightly make the joke again so much as stomp around the joke and then set up camp where the joke lives and proceed to routinely pop in and out to visit it and make it tea. This is wonderful writing and I approve of it. Similarly, the level of detail put into incidental audio is impressive. When I was wandering around Marcuria, I was taken aback by how long the conversations you could potentially overhear were.
However, in Realms, the plot really starts going. I was treated to about ten minutes or so of lengthy exposition. Now, despite being fond of the series overall, I am quite sympathetic to the views expressed by Nick Dinicola of PopMatters in his look-back at The Longest Journey. He writes:
“The game is very clearly pro-separation. The villains want to reunite the worlds, and the good guys warn that this will only bring disaster. This stance raises many questionable but intriguing themes, of course. Magic and science both emphasize knowledge, so by keeping them apart, the game promotes anti-intellectualism. Many characters talk about The Balance in a religious context, as if it’s a sentient thing that governs the worlds, so the game encourages us to trust in this higher power. It has a very clear faith-based message … except that it doesn’t. The game never actually demonizes the pursuit of magical or scientific knowledge, just the combination of the two, so is that still anti-intellectualism?
In the end, after we prevent unification, we’re told in the epilogue that the worlds get reunited anyway, so was our blind faith in The Balance betrayed? What is the game trying to say about knowledge and faith?”
Such criticism still applies to Chapters, as the plot keeps on about how dangerous it is to unite the two worlds of Arcadia and Stark. But what, precisely, does magic represent in this world? What does science represent? I keep looking for meaning at the heart of the plot and find little. Whilst I enjoy the characters and the game does delve into a range of themes that are worthy of discussion (depression, politics, addiction, etc), I don’t know how I feel about the major premise.
The series has cited Buffy the Vampire Slayer as inspiration since the ’90s. Now, I happen to be a fan of Buffy, but I had a similar issue with it that I do with this. That is, Joss Whedon said of Season 4 of Buffy, the idea is that science ”gets its ass kicked” by magic. But was does magic mean in Buffy? And what does magic mean in Dreamfall Chapters? I don’t know. Maybe it’s the philosophy major in me looking for meaning where there might be none.
I liked this episode a lot. I mean that. Overall, a shorter offering than the last book but, in my view, a more engaging one. Point-and-click puzzle enthusiasts should find more to sink their teeth into than in the previous installments.